Category Archives: Food for Thought

Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution

So this post is a little different than usual.  I just watched the premiere of “Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution” on ABC and it left me with a weird feeling.  For those of you who don’t know, the premise of the show is that Jaime Oliver is in Huntington, West Virgina, which is apparently the most overweight city in America, and is trying to change eating habits by focusing on the schools.  He visits an area elementary school and takes out the high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods that compose most of the school breakfasts and lunches, and replaces it with meals made from fresh ingredients that attempt to also be kid-friendly.  I thought the premise of the show is incredibly interesting, and it correlates so well with what I am doing with my AmeriCorps position.  The whole basis for my Cooking Club at the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club is to show the kids how to make food that is easy, inexpensive, and delicious.

The pessimist in me wonders if these kinds of widespread changes Jaime is looking for are possible.  For instance, the meals he prepared in his first week came in at twice the available budget for school food.  That’s a big difference, not one that will be magically solved by finding cheaper fresh food or a bigger budget.  I also can see how convenience foods may seem like the best option at times.  As someone who grew up in a family with five people who usually were doing five different things every evening, I understand that sometimes there is not enough time or energy to make a home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients.  However, the family whose home he went into ate nothing but these processed foods.  Their freezer was stuffed with cheap frozen pizza, and even when he bought them a weeks worth of fresh produce they hardly used it.  Even when they had fresh ingredients, it was hard to break away from the familiar, comfortable routine.

The biggest thing that stuck out to me, perhaps especially now because I working with kids, is that these kids really don’t have a choice in what they eat, and when they do have a choice they may not make the best choice for them because they don’t know any better.  Most of their breakfasts and lunches come from school, and as the tv show explained, those are generally not healthy options.  Additionally, kids will generally eat whatever their parents provide them with for dinner.  And if the parents work a 50 hour week, or do not know how to cook, or are feeding their kids fatty processed food for whatever reason, the child is likely going to grow up obese.   I think that sucks, and even though the child is not completely absolved, it doesn’t seem right that this can and does happen.  I don’t want to get too preachy here at this blog, but I hope people who read this remember that kids usually need help to do the right thing, and if you are in a position to help you should do so.

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Spaghetti: 100% Organic and Homemade…almost

I have a confession to make. Although I talk and write about sustainability, and laud the morals of eating sustainable, local food, we don’t buy local except when the farmer’s market is in season. Or even organic. Until my most recent round of books on food sustainability, I used to justify this decision by saying that organic is too expensive. I can’t afford to buy organic or local stuff now, I thought. I’ll make up for it by buying locally and organically as soon as I’m grown up. As soon as I get a real job. Right?

Well, enough waiting already. I did a lot of thinking and a little pavement research and realized that with the way Paul and I buy food – raw vegetables, whole grains and flours, few processed foods, no packaged dinners or side dishes a la Hamburger Helper – we actually could probably afford to buy a little more organic, for the few pennies more that it would cost us.

This week, Paul and I made our first foray to our local coop grocery store, Bloomingfoods. It’s a small grocery store, with mostly organic, all natural or local products. Bloomingfoods’ produce is much fresher, greener and healthier looking than the normal spread of vegetables we see weekly at Kroger. Past the produce, it gets a little trickier to take in. Because they carry different brands and products from what you’ll find in a conventional grocery store, the shelves and refrigerated cases look different from what we’re used to. It’s mesmerizing, looking at all the different organic, all natural, brands. It’s like being in a grocery store of another country. And instead of the aisles and aisles of dry goods, theres a bulk foods section, where you can put just as much as you need of spices, grains, dried beans, or more into a container or baggie, eliminating all the excess packaging of conventionally-packaged foods. But, while all these new things may at first seem overwhelming, in fact shopping at the coop is much easier than shopping at a conventional grocery store.

For one, having a grocery store with only organic, local or all natural products takes all of the stress out of shopping. Instead of having to look at the ingredients and nutrition label of every product to see just how many unrecognizable additives or chemical preservatives there are inside, or wondering whether or not a product was made with genetically modified organisms, Bloomingfoods has already pre-sorted the products for me. Instead of comparing flours to see which one is actually whole grain and to see which volume of flour yields the best value, at Bloomingfoods, I can simply measure out as much as I need of the organic flour, at a simple price per pound rate. It’s much easier, and much less stressful than shopping at a conventional grocery store.

So Paul and I left Bloomingfoods armed with, among other things, a healthy selection of organic vegetables, some local cheese, and some canned organic tomato sauce, all the ingredients for a healthy, organic, homemade spaghetti sauce. At home, I diced up the onions, green peppers, green zucchini, mushrooms and a chili pepper and sauteed them in olive oil, minced garlic, salt, pepper and some Italian seasonings. Then I added them to a 14.5-oz can of diced tomatoes, a 8-oz can of tomato sauce, and a 6-oz can of tomato paste in a crock pot on low and let the flavors combine all afternoon.

But spaghetti sauce was only part one of my homemade meal. I also baked two loaves of homemade white bread to go with our homemade feast, and Paul made another one of his Caesar salads with the fresh organic lettuce, vegetables and shredded parmesan. It was a delicious meal. And, I think, the pasta sauce tasted better than any I’ve made with conventionally-grown vegetables before. It was gratifying, too, to know that the food we’re eating directly benefits local farmers, producers and – because the coop is member-owned – the community as well.

I think we’ll continue shopping at Bloomingfoods Coop. The cost of some items is slightly higher, but of others is slightly lower, so it all evens out in the end. And it’s healthier for us and for the planet to not eat food produced with tons of pesticides and chemicals and artificial additives. We won’t be eating 100% organic right away, of course. We’ll first have to work through the freezer and pantry food we already have – such as the processed, pre-cooked, frozen meatballs Paul had leftover from Cooking Club at work, and that I, with some chagrin, added to the spaghetti sauce last night. But I think we’ll be able to do it. By the time the farmer’s market returns in April, and my little garden on the deck gets underway, we’ll be eating truly sustainably!

Jess’ (Nearly) Veggie Spaghetti Sauce

Ingredients:

2 small green zucchini, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
1 medium-to-large onion, diced
2 cups diced mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced garlic
olive oil
salt
pepper
Italian seasonings (Basil, Rosemary, Savory, Oregano, etc.)
Red pepper flakes
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes, no salt added
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1 6-oz can tomato paste
Optional: 1/2 lb ground meat (or tofu or seitan, I suppose) of your choice (that’s the “Nearly” part in the title)

Directions:
Sautee vegetables in olive oil and minced garlic for no more than 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasonings and pepper flakes to taste. Combine with canned tomato products and meat, if desired, in crock pot on low and allow to simmer for 1 to 3 hours. Serve over your favorite pasta. Goes particularly well with tri-color rotini. Enjoy with salad and bread for a complete meal!

The case for food system reform

Forward note: Some of you may know that in addition to keeping this Cramped Kitchen blog with Paul, I also write my own blog called Adventures in Sustainability. On that blog, I regularly write articles and post news items about environmental and social sustainability, and sometimes even write about food. The following post was originally posted on Adventures in Sustainability, but because it is about food, I thought I would post it here for your enjoyment. This article is a little more politically-charged than most of the posts you are used to reading on this blog, but I hope you will read it with an open mind (or, perhaps more appropriately, with an open stomach). Comments are, as always welcome.

This weekend, as I was reading up on gardening in Indiana while my boyfriend watched a football game, I caught a commercial on television for Pepsi Throwback edition, advertising that the product was “made with real sugar.” The first thing that came to mind at this commercial was not shock at the fact that regular Pepsi isn’t already made with real sugar; I am well aware of all the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that goes into our soft drinks. Instead, I was floored by the fact that the company was marketing something made with real sugar as a novelty item.

When foods made with real sugar, a natural product, are advertised as innovative, is this not a sure sign of a food system in trouble? A backwards system where foods made with the chemical, the man-made are normal, and those foods made with “the real thing” are out of the ordinary? Has our world really come to a place where foods that are “natural” or “real” are mere novelties? If so, we have all but finally reached the world of Sci Fi, where food has been reduced to a tiny, man-made, chemical-based pill, and real foods, like vegetables, roast beef, seafood, or, gasp, sugar are considered quaint and outdated.

When did we start eating a diet composed largely of man-made, highly processed and refined “food products” instead of real, live food? I cannot help but read the Pepsi commercial as Exhibit A in the case for food system reform.

Maybe the commercial struck such a cord with me because I had just finished reading Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry‘s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which eloquently makes the case for a return to real, sustainable foods: to fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products. Lappe and Terry outline the problems with our current food production system, and, although their complaints are not new – in fact, the organic, sustainable, local, hippie (whatever) community has been making the case for food reform for at least two decades – their book is a succinct and accurate assessment of the problems with modern industrial agriculture and of potential actions we can all make to take back control of our food.

In circles of environmentalists and sustainabilists (of which I count myself a member), it has nearly become common knowledge that modern means of food production – industrial-scale vegetable and grain farming using a plethora of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other fossil-fuel based inputs, factory farming of animals for mass consumption of (too much) meat, high processing and use of additives and preservatives in conventional “food products,” and the transport of all of these food items thousands of miles to their destination on our supermarket shelves – are unhealthy for both humans and the environment. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and others have popularized the problems with the way we produce and consume food in this country. Even the new Obama White House has begun an attempt to spread a message about the importance of eating locally and sustainably through the creation of a new organic garden on the Lawn.

So, if the ailments of our food system have become such a widespread topic of conversation, why is nothing substantive being done to change things? Part of the problem is clearly the downturn of the economy and insurance and real estate market busts that have distracted our national attention from the real problems with our government and economy, such as the issues facing a society reliant on cheap fossil fuels, and lack of access to affordable health care, meaningful education, and healthy, sustainable food. Grub authors Lappe and Bryant argue that in order to spur change in our food system at the national level, we need to start “voting with our pocketbook,” or so the phrase goes. We can start changing what our food system looks like (and what our waistlines look like, too) by buying only sustainable food options – less fast food and processed junk food, and more organic produce and whole grains. Though most people immediately assume organic food is more expensive than conventionally farmed and produced options, Lappe and Bryant show that if you buy whole organic, local, sustainable ingredients and cook more from scratch instead of buying processed, quick-fix foods, a sustainable diet can actually save you money. You can also grow your own food, no matter where you live, from just a few seeds and soil, for not only huge savings but also the assurance that you know where your food comes from and where it’s been.

This last point is the reason I was looking at gardening books this weekend. While my boyfriend, Paul, and I live in a city apartment, we have a small, west-facing balcony on which I plan to grow as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. I am in the process of planning a substantial container garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, salad greens, peas, beans and kale this spring, summer and fall. Living in south-central Indiana, our growing season consists of more than 175 days of frost-free weather, which I can extend even further by planting frost-tolerant kale in the early spring and late fall. Though I am a novice gardener and this first season may not produce as much as I would like, I am hoping to produce at least some produce for Paul and I to enjoy through the summer and fall, to help us live healthier and more sustainably.

There are many things we can do individually to change the way we think about food; growing your own is only one of many things to do. You can purchase food directly from farmers at your local farmers market, ask your grocery store to carry more local, sustainable, organic or fair-trade products, eat less (factory-farmed) meat, start tracking the “food miles” traveled of certain items in your diet and try to cut back on fossil-fuel intensive products, and more. If more people adopt a sustainable diet, the entire food system will begin to be more sustainable. Maybe then we’ll stop seeing commercials advertising products made with the real thing – “real sugar” – as a novelty, and eating “real food” will once again become the norm.

Footnote: As I continue my garden planning and eventual planting, I’ll try to occasionally post pictures of my (hopefully beautiful) vegetables on this blog. Keep checking back!

Guest Post: Cooking Abroad

Madhuri Vijay went to college with Paul and I. She was my roommate for several years and is currently traveling the world on a Watson Fellowship. She maintains her own blog at Veer Bhogya Vasundhara. Enjoy the following guest post to Cramped Kitchen courtesy of Mads.

As a bosom friend of the authors of this fine blog, I have naturally been closely following Jess’ and Paul’s culinary adventures with a mixture of awe and childishly unbridled joy. Some of you may know who I am; I shot to fame for my role as the “authentic Indian studying the Indian diaspora” in the recent blog post titled “Curry Fever,” which immediately inspired to me to appear as a guest blogger writing about my own cooking experiences.

I am traveling to various foreign countries over the course of this year, and I knew, right from the start, that it would be an opportunity like no other to sample different cuisines, to taste strange and exotic flavors, to become familiar with alien eating practices. And I was right. I’d love share with you, if I may, my biggest food-related success: the night I ate two dinners.

Here’s are a couple things you should know before I begin:

1. I am living with a host couple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but they’re out of town at the moment, which means I have to make my own arrangements for food.

2. I don’t know how to turn on the stove in their kitchen. I think it requires some kind of advanced biometric information in order to turn on, like a voice match and retinal scan. Or I have perform a sacrificial ritual at midnight during the full moon to appease the stove gods. Not sure yet.

Anyway, let’s begin.

It was typical Tuesday night. I was at home, alone naturally, alternating between checking Facebook and doing some writing on my laptop. My rumbling stomach made me glance at the clock. 9:30 p.m. already! Far too late to go out to a restaurant, since I live in a not-so-safe neighborhood, and I tend not to venture out after a certain point in the evening. Well, a home cooked meal it would have to be then.

I opened the refrigerator to survey my options. The first thing I spotted was a white paper bag from Domino’s containing the free garlic twisty bread I’d received with my last pizza order. A perfect appetizer. Clutching the bag, I wandered into the kitchen. It would need some preparation, I thought, to soften it and really bring out the subtle flavor of two day-old garlic and salt. Perhaps I could heat it up in the microwave. Then I remembered my host telling me before she left that the microwave was broken. She’d meant to get someone to fix it, but hadn’t had the time.

So I took the more circuitous, but less processed route to soften my twisty garlic bread. As Jess will tell you, four years of knowing her has made me appreciate the natural, organic method of food collection and preparation. I set the twisty bread on my desk, still in the paper bag and stared at it. Intensely. Waiting for the atmospheric humidity and my own infrared gaze to work their magic. After about thirty seconds of this, I abandoned the idea of less-than-rock-solid-twisty-garlic-bread (let’s be honest, it was free so how could I complain if it was a tiny bit hard?) and began munching on it until the bag was empty.

Then the specter of the main course raised its ugly head, so I trotted back to the refrigerator. I like my meals to be varied and balanced (my mother is a nutritionist, so it’s only natural), so I decided I needed some dairy. I grabbed an opened packet of cheese singles – not Kraft, but equally healthy, I’m sure – and retreated to the safety of my room to enjoy them. I am very particular about my cheese, so I made sure to tear them into bite-sized bits, which allowed the flavor to really break apart and engulf my taste buds. Four of these cheese singles proved to be a hearty and satisfying meal, and I longed for something to wash it all down.

I remembered, on one of my last trips to the refrigerator, seeing a bottle of Coke lying on its side. I investigated and found my powers of observation had not failed me. Granted, there was only enough to fill half a cup, and it was flatter than a ten-year-old girl, but I thought it was the perfect end to the perfect meal.

Shortly after this, I fell asleep at my computer while reading about the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971, as I tend to do when reading about liberation wars of any kind. When I woke up, forty minutes later, I was dismayed to find that my stomach was rumbling again! This was unfathomable. I looked dazedly at the computer screen, the words miraculously transforming into all manners of delicious foods. I thought about the refrigerator, about all the possibilities contained within. I began compiling a mental list of ingredients. An apple I should probably throw away. Some raw vegetables. A bottle of jam. A mysterious covered dish I didn’t have the courage to open.

I put my head down on my keyboard, causing a series of angry beeps. Time, I think, stood still for a moment. Then inspiration hit.

Forty-five minutes later, I was eating a Spicy McChicken Burger and sipping on yet another Coke, feeling like my cultural indoctrination was complete. McDonald’s had never tasted so good, or so Malaysian. And the best part? I put some of the leftover fries in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s dinner.

Oh, one other thing. Please don’t tell my mother I live like this.

My personal food god: Alton Brown

Alton Brown, my personal Food Network favorite, has just published a cookbook celebrating the 10th season of his show, “Good Eats.” Between Alton Brown and my folks, I have basically all the cooking techniques, facts, and random know-how I need for the kitchen.

Read the full article and listen to the story from NPR here.

Definitely not Downer

For those of you who were privileged to attend undergrad at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin with Paul and I (a large proportion of our readership, we assume), you will recall Downer Commons, the since-replaced Lawrence cafeteria. This was the place where we spent long hours in C dining room, in post-dinner food comas (some of us with top pant buttons undone), discussing the finer points of life, including any of the following: Downer cooking, the ethics of meat-eating, YouTube videos of hilarious animals, Fantasy baseball/football, the latest issue of school paper, and the list continues.

For those of you who missed out on this experience, so much the better for our purposes here. The company and conversation was what made Downer Commons worthwhile; not the food. Suffice it to say that Paul and I, in our “life after Lawrence,” are not channeling inspiration from A-line, B-line or C-line in our day-to-day meals. Searching for more – shall we say, tasteful? – inspiration for our cooking, we have turned to handful of cookbooks that were graduation gifts, as well as the help of cable television and the God known as the Food Network. Whoever says TV is not educational has not watched Alton Brown on Food Network. Watching expert chefs at work really teaches you something about how to move about a kitchen, performing the art of cooking.

The entire extent of my personal culinary education has come from cooking with Mom and Dad when I was growing up, and watching Food Network. A list of things I have learned recently includes:
– How not to cut yourself when slicing, dicing and chopping using sharp knives.
– How to thicken sauce without getting clumps of flour in it.
– How to use fresh herbs to maximize flavor.
– How to jazz up simple things, like grilled cheese, or pasta alfredo, or asian stir fry using fairly common ingredients.
– Not to be afraid of hot peppers, or bold spices and flavors.

Paul and I considered not getting cable. In fact, the only reason we have cable now is because the cable company was running a promotion where getting both cable and high-speed internet together is actually cheaper than getting just internet alone. We didn’t complain. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to have this cheap source of entertainment (and culinary education) at my disposal. Paul and I watch, and though we can’t taste what they’re cooking on screen, we can tell by sight what we like and what flavor combinations would be delicious with dinner.

We have, I have to say, cooked some pretty damn good food since we’ve got to Bloomington. But after this post, you won’t have to take our word for it. Keep checking back regularly for pictures (as evidence of our culinary skills) and rough recipes (so you can try them at home). Bon Appetit!